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Pima County OKs Stonegarden border funding on 3-2 vote

Supes nix license-plate readers; Bronson conditions OK on humanitarian aid, limits on cooperation with feds

After more than two hours of comments from the public, and more than an hour of discussion, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Tuesday in favor of accepting $1.8 million in federal Operation Stonegarden grants for border-enforcement patrols and gear for the Pima County Sheriff's Department. 

Democrat Sharon Bronson joined Republicans Ally Miller and Steve Christy to vote for Stonegarden, leaving fellow Democrats Richard Elias and Ramón Valadez to vote against the funding.

In a pair of 3-2 votes, the supervisors on Tuesday approved accepting the grant package, with a long list of conditions. Bronson conditioned her support on the county receiving funding for the "maximum indirect personnel costs" of the program — about $257,000. Her motion in favor included setting aside $200,000 of those funds for "humanitarian costs," to be used to fund "local faith-based nonprofits" assisting migrants released here by Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The supervisors voted to reject funding for a pair of license-plate readers, which had attracted criticism from privacy advocates.

For the last 12 years, the county has accepted Stonegarden grants, receiving around $16 million in funding. Last February, the grant that was once part of the supervisors' consent agenda became part of a long-running fight over how the Sheriff's Department spends the federal money under the direction of Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

In September, the supervisors voted to reject last year's grant, which included $1,191,000 earmarked for overtime and mileage, and another $237,967 reserved for equipment for the department. At that time, PCSD had already spent around $637,000, and around $793,000 was returned to the federal government, and later reallocated to other agencies that operate inside the county, said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

However, earlier this year, Sheriff Mark Napier and his staff applied for the next grant cycle, renewing the fight over Stonegarden after the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, which manages the grant in Arizona, approved the grant application on March 1. 

This includes $1,155,866 in overtime costs, $50,000 for mileage, and more than $13,000 for travel. The grant application also included $595,000 for a FLIR camera for the department's aircraft, and $33,000 for two license plate readers.

While, like other local law enforcement agencies, PCSD already has deployed some plate readers, the funding for them in the Stonegarden grant drew controversy. The supervisors specifically excluded that funding from their approval Tuesday.

The supes also pushed Napier to investigate the destruction of water caches left in the desert to save migrants' lives. The sheriff confirmed that he'll continue to exclude ICE from a permanent presence at the county jail, and that deputies will not perform "pretextual stops" at the request of Border Patrol.

Elias, explaining his "no" stance, said that the addition of humanitarian aid "doesn't pass the stink test." The funding will be "going to folks like Southwest Key," he said.

The Democratic chairman of the county board said that while he'd "like to believe it's true," the many "layers of approval" required to shift some funding to aid for migrants make him skeptical it will take place.

Bronson had joined with her fellow Democrats to reject the funding last year. Tuesday, she shifted her stance, with a number of additional conditions.

She cited "concerns about returning equipment" and replacement costs, and said she was "concerned with the extreme rhetoric on both sides of the equation here," noting that there was "misinformation" being spread about the Stonegarden program.

Bronson said issues of "rampant racism" were broader than just Stonegarden enforcement. "That's a larger issue across the county, that has to be addressed," she said.

Napier, pressed by Elias, said he would "work with our federal partners diligently... to the degree I control those variables" to get the aid funding approved under the grant.

Napier said the demands for transparency about how the funds are spent and deputies are deployed when being paid with Stonegarden money are "perfectly within my wheelhouse."

Huckelberry pushed Stonegarden OK

Ahead of Tuesday's vote, Huckelberry produced a flurry of memos, arguing that the board should accept the funding to avoid being on the hook for equipment, previously provided under Stonegarden, that might have to be returned.

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In his most recent memo, Huckelberry said that PCSD had provided the "most refreshing response" to requests for information. 

"In fact, no other police agency provided the Daily Activity Reports (DARs) and the data and information requested," he said. 

In a memo from March, Huckleberry said that Napier, "to his credit, has agreed to provide copies of the DARs filed by the Pima County Sheriff’s Department without the present drama we are experiencing with other requests." 

He also criticized a meeting of the Community Law Enforcement Partnership Council—a review board created as one of the stipulations as part of last February's agreement to temporarily accept the grant—which ultimately recommended that the board should reject the grant. 

"Unfortunately, after reviewing the video of the recent CLEPC meeting, it is now apparent that this openness by the Sheriff and his agency is being mischaracterized in order to argue that his Department is now hiding information, which is incorrect," Huckleberry said. 

"We have received more open cooperation and communication from Sheriff Napier and his Department than any other police agency regarding OPSG. If there is any hope in reforming the system, it is only through cooperation with the police agencies receiving funding," he said. 

In the same memo, Huckleberry said that a meeting between the Arizona Border Counties Coalition, Arizona officials, and CBP was "the most informative and productive meetings we have had," and that officials addressed some of the county's concerns, but also warned that should the county reject the grant, previously purchased equipment could be repossessed. 

In his memo, Huckleberry included a list of more than two dozen items, including all-terrain vehicles, helicopter parts, and other items would either have to be returned, or the costs covered, and he estimated that the county could be on the hook for nearly $2.2 million. 

This followed an earlier memo, where Huckleberry informed the board that he would seek humanitarian costs, relating to the county's costs for managing asylum seekers who have been released by U.S. Border Patrol and ICE. 

Two events served as polestars for many of the arguments against Stonegarden. 

The first was the Trump administration's move last summer to separate children from their parents in a disastrous, and highly controversial move prosecute parents for illegally entering the country. This policy became a Gordian knot, as administration officials repeatedly misrepresented the administration's goals, and a fundamental inability to track children as they were taken from their parents and handed over to another federal agency resulting in an ongoing lawsuit. 

The second was the arrest and subsequent detention of a high school senior in Tucson last Thursday following a traffic stop by a PCSD deputy, which resulted in his detention with immigration authorities just days before he was set to graduate from Desert View High School. 

On Monday, more than 100 Desert View High School students walked out of class and marched four miles to the PCSD's office, demanding the release of Thomas Torres-Maytorena. 

"They grabbed and put him in a sheriff's vehicle and held him for an hour until Border Patrol came," said Jessica Rodriguez, an organizer for the Southside Worker's Center. 

"We see this first-hand, the sheriff's department works, it collaborates with Border Patrol." Two pictures, captured by Rodriguez shows a PCSD vehicle and a Border Patrol SUV hidden behind a shopping center in south Tucson. "Their collaboration goes hand in hand with criminalizing and deporting people, and no is talking about the people. It’s not just about the money, it’s not about the budget, it’s about the morality of this." 

Deputies released details of the stop in a news release, writing that "through observation, the Sheriff's Department identified two members of CLEPC as potential organizers of the protest," so in an attempt to "prevent the possible spread of misinformation before the planned Board of Supervisors vote on Stonegarden," the agency released a summary of Torres-Maytorena's arrest. 

In a news release, deputies said that around 9:56 p.m., a deputy stopped Torres-Maytorena because his car had a "mandatory insurance suspension; a clear situation of reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop." 

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The deputy, who was not working as part of Stonegarden or the department's Rural Safety Initiative the agency pointedly noted, asked Torres-Maytorena for his driver's license. Unable to provide some form of identification, Torres-Maytorena "admitted to the deputy that he was in the country illegally," the agency said, so the deputy called Border Patrol.

In a raucous, emotional call to the audience during the county board's meeting Tuesday, more than 30 people expressed their dismay that the county might accept the federal funding, while around 10 people argued in support of the grant, including Napier. 

Steve Diamond sharply criticized the supervisors and said they should reject the grant even with conditions. "We will try to bind him with the magic that was conditions," he said. "It isn't going to work. You know it, I know it and he knows it, why do you think he is unbothered by all this fuss?" 

"It doesn't take a magician to see where this is headed," he said. "If I could cast magic I use it to reawaken your sense of morality, your sense of principle, and your courage in the face of a system that eats your soul in small bites." 

Diamond said if the Board was "truly determined to accept" the grant with condition, "they had better be the best conditions on this planet," because "last year's conditions weren't even strong enough to stop Sheriff Napier from spending money you thought you had stopped him from." He said that he emailed 16 condition they could consider to limit the Sheriff's office actions. 

Brad Cower said he supported the grant, arguing that regular people "are not represented by these activists." 

"I’m a law and order type of guy, people who violate the rules should be able to push the agenda," Cower said. "As with all the previous sheriffs, he is dealing with illegal operations, some of which are involving activities along the southern border" he said, adding that it was "necessary for elected sheriff to be given the tools and allowed do the job he was elected to do, with no strings attached." 

Andrew Gullo, a resident of Diamond Bell Ranch, a "working cattle ranch," south of Three Points, said that he was "pretty easy going, but whenever someone messes with my security, and my neighbor's security, to prove a political point, I get upset." 

"For years and years and years, Stonegarden has been rubber-stamped by this board, and then all of the sudden last year, it's jerked. What changed? Well, wait a minute, we've got a Republican sheriff, and a gentlemen named Trump who's also the president of the United States," he said. "Is this a public service, a public safety issue, or is this a political issue?" 

Kevin McNichols, a retired sergeant from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and a member of CLEPC, urged the board to accept the grant, arguing that people in law enforcement don't start their day, thinking about "how to make someone's life miserable, or how to tear someone's family apart," rather the "ultimate goal" of law enforcement is for voluntary enforcement. 

"Grants like Operation Stonegarden provide the opportunity" for a reactive-type department, to take "information and intelligence" and "proactively look for areas that have high criminal activity," and saturate those areas. McNichols also criticized a recommendation made by the CLEPC to reject a grant from the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety to provide $5,000 for a "buckle-up" enforcement campaign. 

"Over 4,000 kids every year die, and over 10,000 adults are killed," he said, and the grant is an "opportunity" to participate in a national campaign where the focus in on education and not-necessarily on enforcement, McNichols said. 

McNichols was followed by fellow CLEPC member and former chair, Zaira Livier, who asked the board to reject the grant, saying that Stonegarden comes with "absolutely zero metrics, absolutely zero data on what it's supposed to do." 

"We know what the grant says we're supposed to do," the grant explicitly tells departments that they are "not to do day-to-day police duties while on the clock." 

Livier rejected the argument that because the county has accepted the grant for years, it should continue to do so. 

"Things are going to continue to change—we are saying that DHS is highly vulnerable to the needs and wants of the administration," she said. "The current administration has gone beyond any other administration has done, and DHS is there to serve at their whim, it's not there to serve or protect the constitution. It's not there to follow international human rights law, it's not there to protect day-to-day people on the ground from harm." 

Kristen Randall, also a member of CLEPC, criticized the grant's addition of license plate readers, arguing that the devices would allow the Sheriff's Department and anyone who could tie into the database managed by Vigilant Solutions, including private companies, advertisers, debt collectors, as well as ICE. 

PCSD has five LPRs for the auto-theft and drug interdiction units, but the new units would be "installed on regular patrol vehicles," and would go on to "indiscriminately scrap data," including time-tagged and geo-tagged data. 

"If you worry that big government is following you, think about these license plate scanners," she said. 

On April 12, DHS announced that three homeland security programs, including Operation Stonegarden, had more than $1 billion available for states and “urban areas” to protect and recover from “acts of terrorism and other threats,” including $90 million slated for Stonegarden.

This is despite an audit from DHS's Office of Inspector General that said FEMA and CBP "did not meet their oversight responsibilities to monitor Stonegarden grantees, issue guidance and approve costs, and demonstrate program performance," and that FEMA was "not meeting its monitoring responsibilities because it does not have accurate financial data to identify grantees that require additional monitoring." 

And, as part of the bill that ended the partial shutdown of the federal government that began in December, the White House agreed to spend $415 million for humanitarian relief along the southwestern border, including medical care, transportation and food for migrants, as well as a significant increase in the number of trained medical personnel who could evaluate people while they are in BP custody.

 Months later, in February, the city of Nogales accepted its own Stonegarden subgrant, accepting $817,000 from Homeland Security for overtime and mileage reimbursements from DHS. 

The approval came despite an increasingly strained-relationship between the city of Nogales and DHS over the installation that week of concertina or “razor” wire along the port of entry and border fencing in downtown Nogales. 

Meanwhile, in Marana, the city council accepted $308,800 for overtime and reimbursements, including nearly $54,000 slated to purchase a single license plate reader, six thermal cameras for vehicles, and two density meters—handheld devices that can help detect hidden objects in vehicles and other items. 

And, while Pima County effectively gave up on around $900,000 in funding, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office accepted Stonegarden grant money and the agency’s use of a helicopter on Stonegarden operations were highlighted repeatedly by Border Patrol following the board’s decision. 

On Friday, Tucson Sector Border Patrol trumpeted their rescue operations and noted that a helicopter crew from Pinal County evacuated a Honduran man from a remote canyon near Ajo after he suffered a broken arm.

Overall, five agencies in Pima County have sought grants this year, including police departments in Marana, Oro Valley, Sahuarita, and Tucson, as well as the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. 

And, just a few weeks ago, on April 23, supervisors in Cochise County unanimously accepted their own Stonegarden grant worth $.14 million, including $570,000 for employee overtime and mileage costs, as well as $917,000 to buy equipment, including more than $600,000 slated for a Simulcast Repeater Site to improve radio communication for law enforcement agencies in the county. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Randall’s name.


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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier speaks to members of the Pima County Board of Supervisors just before a vote on Operation Stonegarden.

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